If you know
anything about the Estonian capital Tallinn, it is likely to be the
chocolate-box appeal of its medieval Old Town, a Unesco-protected jumble of
intertwining alleys and picturesque courtyards. Most visitors see little more
than this cobblestoned labyrinth, happily taking in red-rooftop views from
medieval turrets and sipping cocktails in cosy vaulted cellars.
Town deservedly hogs the marketing limelight, but it is hugely rewarding to
step outside of the ancient town walls and experience Tallinn's unsung
treasures. The small city (population: 425,000) is a charmingly compact blend
of church spires, glass skyscrapers, Baroque palaces, brooding battlements,
shiny shopping malls and cafes set on sunny squares – with a few Soviet
throwbacks in the mix, for added spice.
joyfully regaining its independence in 1991, Estonia has turned its focus to
the west, transforming itself into a modern, internet-savvy country (fun fact: Skype
software was invented here). It is also determined to catch up with its Nordic
neighbours in the quality-of-life stakes, thanks to its robust ties with nearby
Finland (Helsinki is just 80km across the water, and frequent ferries connect
the two cities).
be pleasantly surprised to discover stylish restaurants plating up
oh-so-fashionable New Nordic cuisine, and a design scene taking its cues from
Scandinavia. There is also an ever-growing number of museums, including award-winning
modern-art repository Kumu and the fascinating
museum, which explains how the state security agency kept tabs on
visitors during the Soviet era (they operated from a spy base atop Hotel Viru, the only hotel in
Tallinn where foreigners were permitted to stay).
neighbourhoods are ripe for exploration, and areas gaining traction with
visitors include beachside Pirita and leafy, affluent Kadriorg, both east of
the Old Town and easily reached by tram or bus. However, the best place for a
taste of local life is Kalamaja, a district just northwest of the Old Town. Its
name translates as “Fish House” and it traditionally served as the town’s main
fishing harbour. It is an old quarter filled with distinctive wooden houses,
and, like all good working-class neighbourhoods, is emerging
as a hang-out for artists, with quirky and affordable spots to eat, drink and
The Culture Kilometre
(Culture Kilometre) opened in 2011 to coincide with Tallinn's turn in the
spotlight as European Capital of Culture – a title it shared for the year with
Turku, Finland. Despite the name, it is actually a 2km pedestrian and bike
path, developed to provide easy access from the city centre and Tallinn Passenger
Port (Vanasadam) to the cultural sites of Kalamaja.
the path is not signposted, it does appear on most tourist maps. Start by the
on the waterfront in the port area which lies just to the northeast of the Old
Town. Nothing says "former Soviet" like a gigantic public building
made of concrete, and the bunker-like Linnahall certainly fits the bill. Built
for the 1980 Moscow Olympics (for which Tallinn hosted the sailing events) and
originally christened the Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport, the Linnahall contains
within its crumbling, much-graffitied hulk a vast concert hall. Concrete steps
lead up to the roof – a favourite spot for young partygoers to bring drinks and
watch the sunset before a night out, or watch the sunrise after a night of clubbing.
It is a great place to enjoy watery Gulf of Finland views and contemplate
Soviet-era Tallinn – this was the northwestern edge of the Soviet Union, after
west, you will pass the ramshackle Museum
of Contemporary Art inside a former power plant. It is a small and
unconventional museum that started as an artists' squat, with free changing
exhibitions showcasing often provocative video, photography and sculpture.
the museum is the KultuuriKatel
(Culture Cauldron), where work is underway to transform the gasworks into
Tallinn's own miniature version of London's Tate Modern gallery by 2015,
combining art galleries, music studios and public spaces.
along the path, you will reach Kalasadam, the small fishing-boat harbour that
gives the area its name (kala means
fish, sadam means harbour)., and
where the Estonian Design House
is located. This showroom of locally designed clothing, textiles and
accessories reveals strong Nordic influences, with ceramics and carved juniper
wood used for homewares, and fabrics often adopting the patterns found in
traditional Estonian folk dress. The cafe Kohvik Klaus has a funky
retro-inspired interior and plump sofas on its big terrace – perfect for a
breakfast of Belgian waffles or a late-night cocktail.
Next is the
path's most intriguing pitstop: crumbling, eerie Patarei, built as a sea fortress
under Russian tsar Nicholas I in 1840, but served as a prison from 1920 to 2005.
When you see the state of decay, plus the grim, damp conditions, it is
incredibly difficult to imagine that prisoners were kept here until only eight
years ago. Tours are
possible, but you can also snoop around on your own (the hanging room and the
exercise pens paint a sombre picture, while the remnants of the medical area
are unsettling). Behind the prison, at the fenced waterfront, is a drink kiosk and
a bizarre strip of sand where concerts and parties are staged in summer.
final attraction is the vast and impressive Seaplane Harbour, garnering tourist
and architectural plaudits since its opening in May 2012. Huge concrete hangars
from the 1920s house an interactive, kid-friendly maritime museum complete with
a 1936 mine-laying submarine, a British seaplane that saw active duty in World War
I and a large aquarium revealing the fishy inhabitants of the Baltic Sea.
Seaplane Harbour, wander about 1.5km south through the residential streets of Kalamaja to reach the Balti jaam
market behind the eponymous main train station. It offers a taste of
old-school Russia, selling everything from fruit and vegetables to knock-off
Lenin alarm clocks, with lots of fascinating junk shops to delve through.
west of here on the edge of Kalamaja is a favourite local haunt, the Telliskivi complex,
an old warehouse cluster that is now used as a creative community hub with
artist studios, workshops, band rehearsal spaces and more. If you visit, it is hard
to resist the cool, casual eatery F-hoone, where
industrial-chic decor meets an international menu of superbly priced dishes –
such as crispy pork belly, lamb burgers or Thai tom kha soup – plus one of the
country's finest creme brulees.
railway lines and walk off your meal with an amble through Schnelli Park,
just a short stroll from the medieval magnificence of the Old Town.